When South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds signed legislation that effectively bans abortion in his state, the director of the militantly anti-choice Christian Defense Coalition announced that the legal and political foundations that underpin the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision are crumbling. "Roe is slowly, but surely, being chipped away at," declared the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney.
That’s not a precisely accurate picture.
In fact, there is nothing slow about the current assault on reproductive rights.
At least eleven more states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — are currently considering bans similar to the one enacted in South Dakota, which outlaws abortion in almost all cases.
Under the South Dakota ban, abortions would only be permitted in a narrow category of cases where the life of the mother was in danger. The state’s law provides no protection for victims of rape and incest, nor to women whose health might be severely damaged by continuing a pregnancy.
Physicians who violate the South Dakota ban face up to five years in prison.
No state is going to get away with banning abortion before the Supreme Court revisits the issue. And that will take time. But anti-choice activists, inspired by the fact that the court’s two newest members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have records of criticizing Roe, are doing everything they can to speed up the clock.
If they succeed in overturning Roe, abortion will still only be banned in those states that have laws on the books barring the procedure.
But there could be a lot of states that fall into this category. In addition to South Dakota and the eleven states currently considering bans, a number of additional states have pre-Roe bans that are still on the books.
Many of the pre-Roe bans are every bit as draconian as the one just enacted by South Dakota legislators. Indeed, if the high court were to overturn Roe, and if the old law were given new life by such a ruling, the act of terminating a pregnancy or assisting a woman in doing so would become a felony. Protections for rape victims could disappear. And doctors could be fined and imprisoned for performing abortions.
That means that time is short for citizens of a lot more states than just South Dakota to signal to governors and legislators that they do not want to elminate the right to choose.
Changing the minds of individual legislators will be difficult. Positions on reproductive rights issues tend to be locked in — especially for Republican legislators who worry about primary challenges from that party’s political potent social conservative wing.
But changing individual legislators is another issue altogether.
The abortion rights debate is heating up in a year when two thirds of the nation’s governorships and the vast majority of state legislative seats are up for election.
No election should ever be about a single issue.
But, if the assault of the foundations of reproductive freedom continue, abortion will have to be a central issue to the elections of 2006, and voters will have to choose whether women should continue to have the right to choose. To maintain this fundamental right, voters will have to elect governors and legislators who do not just oppose overturning Roe, but who will be at the ready to overturn currently-dormant bans on abortion.
Where does your state rate? According to a 2004 survey by the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion could quickly become illegal — either through the reanimation of now dormant laws or the rapid passage of new bans — in as many as 30 states if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade ruling.
The 21 states that are seen as being at highest risk for banning abortion are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The nine states considered to be at medium risk are Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
The states at low risk states are Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.